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 Issue 23 • March 19, 2019 • by Taylor Blatchford 

Tapping into readers’ curiosity to build trust (and better stories)

With a simple question, The Shorthorn flipped the traditional story generation process on its head: “What do you want to know about UTA?”

This spring, the student newspaper at the University of Texas at Arlington launched UTA Unfolded, an engagement-driven reporting initiative. Readers submit questions, reporters investigate, and the resulting stories are published and shared with the public.

Narda Pérez, a UTA senior and The Shorthorn’s social media editor, discussed the project and its growth in the first month. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the idea for the project come about?

I saw the Dallas Morning News’ Curious Texas project, which is the same idea. I thought that was a cool way to interact with their readers, and why not do that locally? Arlington is our area of coverage because the city doesn’t have a daily news publication outside The Shorthorn. A lot of its citizens really do look at The Shorthorn as the city’s newspaper.

There are lots of Facebook communities within the city, and part of my job is to see what everyone’s talking about online and what’s missing from our coverage. There’s lots of talk about the city that does involve UTA even if the issue didn’t originate from the university.

So far we’ve gotten a lot of good, deep questions. It’s really refreshing to see our readers care enough to come to us with these questions about campus and the city, and they want to talk to our staff members about our reporting process. We want to educate the public and make them feel like they can walk into our newsroom, join a meeting and ask us questions.

How did you prepare to launch?

The social media assistant and I met with our editor-in-chief and digital managing editor and told them the idea. They were on board and said we should just do it. We made a checklist with our goals: to provide information the readers are asking us in real time. We designed a logo and wrote up an explanation of what the project is. We also spent lots of time talking to our staff, convincing them it’s going to be fun.

We promoted it in our daily email newsletter that goes to 70,000 people by sharing the explainer of the project, plus the Google form for people to send in questions. I had a good feeling and knew it would help make an impact on campus.

(Roman Brown / The Shorthorn)

What sort of response have you gotten?

We got a big influx of questions at first, then it kind of plateaued and I got scared, but then it increased again. We’re getting a good dozen questions every week, which has been really fun and is adding up. We’re making sure to get all of these assigned throughout the newsroom, and it isn’t just for our news staff — it’s a newsroomwide effort.

What’s the most surprising question you’ve been asked?

One of the early ones asked us about a residence hall here on campus that was just demolished, and they wondered if the university demolished it because it was haunted.

Another asked about the UTA underground, these utility tunnels under campus that only facilities management can go into in the basements of buildings. Before 9/11 they were more open and less secure. We found old photos and Shorthorn staff members went in there in 2001.

What guidance do you give reporters when they’re reporting and writing these stories?

It’s still journalism: We start with research, thinking about the holes we have to fill and who our stakeholders are. It’s the same process we would go through if a reporter was pitching any story.

But we also go one step further to say, what else do we need to tell the reader? What else do we need to know that we haven’t already covered? There are lots of questions that we’ve covered in the past but from a different angle — The Shorthorn is 100 years old, so we’re written about a lot of things. We’re making sure the reporters do research in our archives to make sure we're not regurgitating something.

When they’re writing, it’s not a straight news story with a lead and hard nut graf. It’s more conversational, bringing people through the process and how we found the story.

How have the stories performed after they’ve published?

I was shocked at how fast these stories we published have been picking up online and in our newsletter. People really loved one story we did about restaurants in the College Park District, and we’re still getting more inquiries, which gives us a platform to do more stories. It opens the gate for more follow up and more conversations with different people. The reactions to the stories online are positive at least 99 percent of the time.

(Screenshot from The Shorthorn)

Tell me about the Facebook group for the project and why you decided to use that.

At first I was more focused on getting questions assigned and promoting the project on other social media, but the Facebook group is growing slowly and steadily. I’d never made one so it was a process, making a discussion policy and things like that. It’s cool to drop our links to investigations in there and see people interacting. We want to develop a two-way dialogue online, because usually we’re not replying to people when we share things online. When someone points things out, we’re not saying, “thanks for that.” I’ve had a lot of fun this semester replying to comments, engaging with readers, asking reporters if they can explain things.

Do you have advice for other student newsrooms who might want to launch a similar project?

I wish I’d known that while it may seem really scary to launch something new like an engagement project, it comes down to one thing: making sure you’re engaging with your readers in any way possible. Setting up a Google form and sending the link is all you need. As long as you remind yourself the goal is to make sure the readers feel like they’re being heard, it’s going to be worth it.

It’s cool to see newsrooms in the professional world do initiatives like this, and college newsrooms are catching on. I hope more college newsrooms do this. It can help tensions between the public and our newsroom, and it’s good to see who we’re serving.

One tool we love

Have you ever wondered who’s shared your story on social media? Crowdtangle’s Chrome extension does just that, showing the social account that shared the story, the date, the number of interactions and a link to the share. It’s free and easy to install and works on any website, not just your news outlet’s. The shares don’t update right away, though, so wait an hour or two before checking.

Bonus tools: Last weekend I talked with high school students at the Washington Journalism Education Association state conference about digital tools to make their journalism lives easier! Here’s the presentation — you might recognize some of the tools from previous issues.

(Screenshot from CrowdTangle)

Reading list

A record number of state legislatures have introduced bills this year to protect student journalists’ press freedom, the Student Press Law Center reports. Find out your state’s press freedom rights and track the status of legislation on the SPLC’s New Voices page.

An invisible burden in journalism schools falls on faculty members of color, University of Missouri graduate student Marlee Baldridge reports. Schools struggle to recruit, reward and retain faculty members from underrepresented groups.“It won’t be enough to for newsrooms and j-schools alike to talk about diversity without seriously considering the reasons the conversation is necessary,” she writes.

After federal prosecutors charged more than 50 wealthy parents and college athletic coaches last week for a massive admissions scam, Sara DiNatale at the Tampa Bay Times rounded up student journalists’ coverage in this great Twitter thread. Here are a few highlights:

Opportunities and trainings

💌 Last week's newsletter 💌
How to write a cover letter that will land in the ‘yes’ pile
I want to hear from you — what would you like to see in the newsletter? Have a cool project to share? Email blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com.
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Edited by the wonderful Nancy Coleman.
This week's issue is brought to you thanks to an iced latte (!!!) from Storyville Coffee.

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